With longtime reserve Brandon Johnson and 2008 first rounder Keith Rivers departing this offseason, linebacker has generally been considered the thinnest position on the depth chart.
This season's starters will resume where they left off last year (Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson as the outside linebackers, Rey Maualuga in the middle), but the lineup of players behind them is generally very young and untested. Head coach Marvin Lewis, though, thinks that the depth of the linebacker spot is just fine, as he revealed in a chat on Cincinnati.com last Wednesday.
We feel good about the spot. I feel like it is time for our young guys to step up and play -- Muckelroy, Moch, Skuta, who we consider to be a starting player. If he's not a starter, he's the first backup at every spot. Along with Burfict and the other two college free agents they have the ability to come in and compete for backup spots along with special teams.
Lewis rightly defends Skuta's ability as the "first backup at every spot". The organization really likes what they've seen out of Skuta since he was added as a college free agent in 2009. He started a few games last year at middle linebacker, when Rey Maualuga went down. Skuta also leads the team in special teams tackles over the past three years. Add it all up, and you've got a lock to make the team.
Lewis also went into what he's seen out of the other young guys. Burfict didn't make many mistakes in OTAs and undrafted linebacker Emmanuel Lamur earned several shoutouts from Lewis during press conferences. Lewis could be referring to either Micah Johnson or Grant Hunter as the second college free agent. Johnson has looked better than Hunter during OTAs and also has 25 pounds on him, but Johnson might not qualify as a college free agent, since he's practiced with three NFL teams in the last two years. If he's talking about Hunter, that's the first positive report released on the slightly undersized linebacker.
Currently, the unofficial depth chart looks like this:
|SLB||Manny Lawson||Roddrick Muckelroy||Dontay Moch||Grant Hunter|
|MLB||Rey Maualuga||Dan Skuta||Vontaze Burfict||Micah Johnson|
|WLB||Thomas Howard||Vincent Rey||Emmanuel Lamur|
No official depth chart actually exists right now, so this is what we could come up with based on our knowledge of the players and their history. The locks have been italicized. Firstly, don't think the reserves are chained to whichever slot they are in right now. Skuta, Rey, and Muckelroy have the ability to back up every spot. Burfict, Johnson, and maybe even Lamur probably have that versatility too. Moch, as a former defensive end, is probably limited to just the strongside linebacker spot, which plays much closer to the line of scrimmage and doesn't have to drop in coverage as much.
Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer recently tweeted that the second team (from OTA's and minicamp) consisted of Muckelroy and Rey on the outside, with Skuta in the middle. He added that Vontaze Burfict will probably take some second team snaps very soon as well.
Reedy broke down the linebacker battle very well in an article posted this morning, and he points out that there are only three spots up for grabs. Rey, Muckelroy, Moch, Burfict, Lamur, Johnson, and Hunter will all fight for the last three spots, and there's no major clues right now that hint to which ones will make the team.
Moch is the most unique of these bubble players, while Burfict has a lot of potential at the middle linebacker spot, while the other players are all versatile and ready to contribute on special teams. Though there's not a lot of proven depth at linebacker, don't think there won't be a heated battle for the last three spots.